Bob Conn

Bob Conn

During their freshman and sophomore years, Mt. Ararat High School cross country runners Nate Mackenzie and Sam Wood learned from perennial Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference First Team runner and State Class A contender Andy Reifman- Packett.

Now, the juniors and lifelong friends have combined to take over the top spot on longtime coach Diane Fournier’s squad after Reifman-Packett’s graduation.

So far, the results have exceeded their expecations.

In four races this season, Mackenzie and Wood have combined to win three, with Wood taking the past two, including Friday’s lone home meet of the season. Wood also took the top spot at Waterville the week prior, with Mackenzie running to a victory at the season-opening Laliberte Invitational in Augusta.

MT. ARARAT HIGH SCHOOL junior cross country runners Nate Mackenzie, left, and Sam Wood are the Eagles’ top two runners this season. They lead their squad in a meet at Brunswick on Thursday.

MT. ARARAT HIGH SCHOOL junior cross country runners Nate Mackenzie, left, and Sam Wood are the Eagles’ top two runners this season. They lead their squad in a meet at Brunswick on Thursday.

And, Mackenzie finished ahead of his teammate in a meet at Oceanside High School at Rockland, taking second while Wood finished third.

“Nate was strong at the beginning of the season and is getting stronger,” said Fournier, whose squad returns to action on Thursday at Brunswick (4 p.m.). “Sam is really coming along and I can only see him improving.

“Though they are just juniors, they have that mental toughness of a senior.”

Nate Mackenzie

“I first starting running when I was 7-years-old when I did summer track,” said Mackenzie, who also participates in Nordic skiing and outdoor track for the Eagles. “I went away from running for a while until my sixthgrade year when I began running full time. Cross country helps my skiing, and for track it gives me a real good base. It helps me to bring my times down in the 3,200 and 1,600.”

Mackenzie, son to Skip and Jessie Mackenzie, lives in Bowdoinham. Older brothers Dan and Alec attended Mt. Ararat.

Mackenzie points to the end of his sophomore outdoor track season as the time he realized his work was paying off, and his Second Team All- KVAC selection last season showed his improvement.

“I ran good times at states in the outdoor track season, running the mile in 4:39 and the two-mile in 10:01, and that gave me something to work off of during the summer,” said Mackenzie, who credits his closeness with Reifman- Packett as a reason for his success. “Having someone ahead of you to look up to really helps out, and now that he is gone, having Sam right there to push me along has certainly helped to.

“And, coach Fornier is someone that really helps you to get in tune. She is great and has really helped me during my time running at Mt. Ararat.”

“The season has started out very strong, and right now I’m just trying to hold on and hope everything stays together and continue to run well until when it matters at states,” continued Mackenzie, who finished 10th in the KVAC Championships, 13th at the Eastern Maine Class A Regionals and 16th at the Class A State meet last season. “It was a great start at Laliberte (he ran a 13:53.84 in the 2.4-mile event). I thought I would contend, but I didn’t figure I would run away with it.”

Mackenzie feels his earlyseason rivalry with his teammate Wood has helped the Eagles in the early going. Mt. Ararat has finished first in three of its four meets (second to Hampden Academy at Waterville).

“When you have two runners scoring well, it comes down to the other three runners,” said Mackenzie. “We all help each other, and when two runners go fast, everyone else wants to do the same. We have a great team, with guys looking to bring their times down so we can finish pretty high up on the podium at the Class A meet.”

As for his personal goals and ongoing battles with his friend?

“I really would like to get comfortable under 17 (minutes) by states and be in the mix for KVAC and states. As for Sam and I, we both want to win. It’s a friendly rivalry, but we do all our training together and try to help each other get better.

“We do help each other out, but if it comes down to the last mile, we both know it is every man for himself.”

Sam Wood

Most of Wood’s sophomore cross country campaign was lost due to a broken arm. His injury healed just in time for KVACs, and his time of 19:12 was good for 11th.

Wood didn’t expect much at regionals, but his time of 17:58.50 — his first sub-18 finish — gave him some confidence heading into this season.

“I was really surprised with my time at regionals, and it was something I truly did not expect,” said the son of Duncan and Josie Wood of Harpswell. Sister Emma Wood, who finished fifth at the KVAC and Regional meets last season, is a freshman at Colby College in Waterville.

Wood briefly began his running career in elementary school, but it wasn’t until his freshman year in high school that he realized cross country was for him.

Heading into the 2012 campaign, Wood hoped for a solid start. He finished second at Laliberte in 14:08.23 and third behind Camden Hills’ Ben Trapani and Mackenzie at Oceanside before taking control early and rolling to a win at Waterville in 17:33.

His win at Topsham on Friday (17:52.83) was just six seconds ahead of Mackenzie.

“I love knowing that you can make personal goals and try to achieve them, but also have the team thing,” said Wood, whose time in the Waterville meet was a personal best. “I became passionate at the end of last year’s season when it became real and I was doing well.

“I would watch how much work Andy put into cross country, and because we have been friends since before kindergarten, I thought I could do that. It was nice to have someone there who was also passionate about it and really cared.”

Wood enjoys his rivalry with Mackenzie.

“It helps to have Nate pushing me, and in the years before he has always been ahead of me, and he has helped me to catch up and be at the head of the pack with him in our meets,” said Wood. “Having the two of us near the top, it gives me hope that we as a team will do well. At practice, the two of us are very motivated and we can pace off of each other in a race.

“But, when it comes down to the last mile, it doesn’t matter who is with me, and if Nate is there, I am going to try and beat him.”

As for goals the rest of this season?

“I want to also get comfortable under 17 minutes, be a contender and stay with the lead pack,” said Wood. “I think we have a strong team. Nate and I as the 1-2 really helps, and if everyone continues to drop their times, we can do well and make it to New Englands.”

“I expect them to continue to improve,” continued Fournier. “If they have a bad race, they talk about what they could do better and then work on it. I believe they will be very competitive at the end of the season.”

The KVACs for cross country will be contested at Cony High School in Augusta Oct. 13, with the State Class A meet set for Oct. 27 at Belfast.

BOB CONN is the Times Record assistant sports editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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